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10 Awesome JDM Cars You Never Knew Existed

If they’re 25 years or older, you can now import them

Updated January 9, 2018

Japanese domestic car market is like a forbidden box that bestows its benefits upon us when we finally open it – minus the negatives of Pandora’s box. When Japanese economy boomed back in the eighties, their carmakers got engaged in unscrupulous war whose purpose was to please prospective buyers with plenty of pocket money to spare. That money was often intended for sports cars, and Japanese automakers duly delivered. When bubble economy finally exploded in early nineties, JDM dried up with it. By then, however, Japanese automakers produced plethora of praiseworthy amazing cars. Cars that are worthy of consideration. Especially if import doesn’t represent a problem for you.

There’s more to Japanese Domestic Market cars than Nissan Skyline GT-R, Honda Integra Type-R, Nissan Silvia and the likes. Like most amazing cars made in Japan, these became widely acclaimed and immensely popular all across the globe. Others, though, kept slumbering in the land of the rising sun. This doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. They simply never became instant classics like the aforementioned models. This can be accredited to numerous factors. Bad marketing, wrong timing, market satiation… Or they simply didn’t meet overseas market requirements at the time. Whichever’s the case, after 25 years, they all become eligible to be imported into the US. Here are some great JDM oddballs you’ve probably never heard about.

Toyota Century

Flagship Toyota limousine that’s never been offered anywhere outside of Japan is quite likely one of their best cars ever. Not only does it offer premium level of luxury fit for Japanese political cream, but it also packs more than a fair amount of heat coming from large displacement engines. Toyota even produced a Royal edition of the limo. As its name suggests, Toyota Century Royal serves as the official state car used by none other than the Emperor of Japan.

First generation models which ran between 1967 and 1997 (with very few cosmetic changes) offered three distinctive engines. 3.0L V8 between ’67 and ’73, 3.4L V8 between ’73 and ’82, and 4.0L V8 between ’82 and ’97. In 1997, Century received its first extensive (take term extensive with a grain of salt here) facelift and a new engine. 5.0L 1GZ-FE V12 conservatively rated at 276 horsepower due to gentlemen’s agreement between Japanese automakers was the first ever Toyota V12 engine. Moreover, Century was the first and only Japanese car with front engine layout and rear-wheel drive.

Even though it’s donned with a Toyota badge, Century sits atop Japanese maker’s lineup. A car that got its name after 100th birthday of Toyota Industries’ founder Sakichi Toyoda, sits above the most expensive Lexuses (or is it Lexi?). In its latest years, it warranted a price tag of more than $100,000. But Toyota Century wasn’t available in just about any Toyota dealership. It was only sold in special Toyota Store dealership network in Japan. And only executives drove it, or rather drove in it. Unlike most other luxurious limos, Century wasn’t intended for wealth-flaunting businessmen. Instead, it was marketed as a car that should be earned through persistent work. A type of work that yields success.

1991 Toyota Century

Mitsubishi FTO

Although FTO came after Japanese bubble economy burst, Mitsubishi’s sports compact was so good that it reminisced JDM’s golden era. Car whose acronyms stood for Fresh Touring Origination even won the Car of the Year award in its home market. It was so desired that Australian, UK and New Zealand sports car enthusiasts even forced Mitsubishi to start offering FTO on a regular basis in their own markets. Grey market has been known to have such influence on an automaker before.

At first, front-wheel drive sports coupe came with 1.8L in-line four capable of generating 123 horsepower. That figure’s comparable to what Mazda MX-5 Miata was offering back then (128 hp from identical displacement). Sports package meant – not only upgraded figures – but a whole new engine altogether. 2.0L V6 delivered 168 horsepower, while the same mill with Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing Electronic Control system (MICEV) put up 197 ponies. Strongest option was reserved for special edition models, however. Models like GPX Car of the Year limited edition from 1995 or GP and GP Special from 1996 and 1997.

Despite making it to some non-Japanese markets via back entrance (grey market), Mitsubishi FTO never made it into the states. It never would have passed the US safety regulations. Exact reason why it got axed come millennium time. Japanese safety regulations also got much more stricter and Mitsubishi brass decided they couldn’t be bothered about a car without the necessary pedigree.

Toyota Chaser

Toyota Chaser was a line of 4-door mid-size sedans which ran between 1977 and 2001. During JDM market’s performance peak, Chaser was in its fourth (’89-’92) and fifth (’92-’96) generation. Although mid-size sedan from Toyota won’t cause any stirs today (plenty of Camry’s around), a Chaser imported to the US certainly would. Well, not at first sight, though. It’s what’s under its hood that would get the job done.

Performance versions of Toyota Chaser shared their straight-six engines with coeval Supras. Fourth generation models, thus came with A70 Supra’s twin-turbo 1GZ-GTE engines, while fifth gen units sported A80 Supra’s 2GZ-GTE mills, both rated at 276 horsepower. There were other available engines as well, but none as flashy and quirky as the fabled Toyota GZ mills.

Toyota Chaser is basically another brick in long and high wall of what if’s. One of the best Japanese sedans ever made would have been a fine addition to Toyota’s North American fleet. Not to mention that it’s probably the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to a 4-door Supra. Instead, US buyers got the Camry. Thing is; none of the US spec Camry’s from early nineties came with 300 ponies at tap. At best, they made half that figure.

Eunos Cosmo

Mazda Cosmo is not just one of the most amazing Japanese cars ever made – it’s also one of the most sought after JDM cars that we hadn’t had the chance to buy. But, arguably the most prolific Mazda car in history which served as Wankel rotary engine’s launch pad and survived for four generations, was more than that.

Original sports car from the late sixties is more than well known, but final models have managed to fall into obscurity by now. They didn’t even have the Mazda badge and were instead marketed under Eunos badge. One of three available separate Mazda divisions back then. Eunos Cosmo built upon JC platform which underpinned nothing else than the luxury touring coupe, to date remains Mazda’s only triple-rotor engined vehicle. Set of three 654 cc chambers equaled to almost 2.0L total displacement. Under 10 psi of boost and dual turbos, this setup generated around 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to these numbers, luxury tourer was able to max out at almost 160 mph.

For those less enthusiastic about speed, Mazda also offered a more conservative dual-chamber rotary engine. More conservative only on paper, though. For this 1.3L 13B-RE setup still generated a whopping 235 horsepower. In that respect, one can say that slow Eunos Cosmo didn’t exist. Now you know why we consider it one of the most awesome cars ever to have come out of Japan.

Mazda Lantis Type R

Mazda Lantis, on its own, is just another ordinary and not overly inspiring hatchback for the Japanese market. Add the well-known Type R moniker (more common in modern-day Hondas) behind its name, and it’s suddenly become an amazing JDM car. This 5-door hot hatch was as hot as Japanese cars came back between 1993 and 1996.

Lantis Type R was motivated by 168-horsepower 2.0L Mazda K V6 engine. Not exactly otherworldly figure (especially compared to contemporary Type R hot hatches), but more than plentiful for a car weighing 2,650 pounds. Lantis was capable of hitting 60 mph from standstill in 7.8 seconds and doing quarter miles in 16 seconds. Well, no one said it was a muscle car. It did come with 1.38 brake horsepower per cubic inch, though.

This frameless window hatch with huge roofline spoiler would have never caught on in the US back then. Even with all of its strong points. Still, we can be justly depressed by the fact Mazda doesn’t offer anything similar in the US even today. There are the hot Focus, Civic and Golf, but no hot 5-door hatch Mazda 3. 2.5L Skyactiv 4-cylinder with 184 horsepower might be balancing between power and economy, but it’s nowhere near as capable as the hot hatches mentioned above.

Autozam AZ-1

Autozam is another one of three mentioned Mazda marques (other two being Eunos and ɛ̃fini). AZ-1 is a super compact sports car marketed by them. It wasn’t actually built by Mazda. Suzuki stands behind this unscrupulous Kei car with gullwing doors. Mazda only helped with its distribution in Japan.

Apart from gullwing doors, this supermini also sported mid-engined layout and rear-wheel drive. One can easily mistake it for a supercar by wading through these specs alone. Still, Autozam AZ-1 lacks the performance bit. Its meager 657 cc straight-three engine only delivers 63 hp and 64 lb-ft of torque. Weighing less than 1,600 pounds, AZ-1 hardly needed more, though. Otherwise, it would have probably had trouble remaining on the ground.

By the time Mazda finally started selling Suzuki’s offspring in 1992, Japan was hit by economic recession. Only 4,392 units were produced before AZ-1 got axed the following year. In addition, Suzuki marketed 531 cars on their own. These sported minor cosmetic differences, fog lights and Cara nameplate.

Suzuki Mighty Boy

Speaking of super compact Kei cars and Suzuki, here’s one oddball for you. Mighty Boy was the only coupe utility car ever sold during the Kei car era. As a commercial vehicle, it benefited from much lower tax requirements, but its towing rates, as you can probably imagine, were rather limited.

Suzuki Mighty Boy remained in production between 1983 and 1988, and despite having nothing special to offer, developed a cult like following in Japan. It had 543 cc straight-three engine with either 28 horsepower in Japan or 31 horsepower in Australia. Apart from being available in Australia, Mighty Boy also made it to Cyprus. It was the cheapest available vehicle in Oz land, much like Yugo would be in the US a few years later.

But despite its shortcomings, Mighty Boy did have some charms. If being in a league of its own isn’t enough, then imagine it as an oddball helpful ute which it actually is. Or rather was. Aside from already mentioned markets, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the Mighty Boy anywhere else. This cute ute was one of the most economical means of towing light and compact cargo ever devised.

Toyota Sera

Suzuki and Mazda aren’t the only Japanese automakers with know-how to utilize the gullwing door design. Toyota did it with Sera – a compact sports car produced between 1990 and late 1995. With its uncanny butterfly doors, sweeping glass roofline and sublime flowing lines, Toyota Sera is one Japanese car we wish was available here in America.

It even had respectable powertrain. 1.5L in-line four taken out of Corolla was able to generate around 100 horsepower. Plenty of power for a car weighing 2,000 pounds. Sera even came with front disc brakes, rack and pinion power steering and optional anti-lock brakes. A feat that wasn’t yet mandatory back in 1990.

Toyota Sera quickly gathered a cult following – not only in Japan – but all across the globe. That’s the reason Toyota was forced to offer the sports car in other markets besides the home market. This makes it more easily acquirable than most other nameplates from the list, but not any less JDM product.

Mitsuoka Orochi

Mitsuoka Orochi might be one of the most awkward or ugliest, if you will, supercars ever produced, but that doesn’t mean its a bad supercar. To the contrary; Orochi is one rather capable performer with a price tag lower than $100,000. At least back in 2006 when base version got introduced.

A car which derives its name from mythical Japanese dragon (and looks like one too), packs somewhat anemic 230 horsepower. Courtesy of Toyota 3.3L 3MZ-FE V6 mill. Naturally aspirated engine still allows Orochi to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. Over the years, Mitsuoka created numerous special editions with cosmetic changes, tech upgrades and more plushier interior. Although price tag rose considerably, powertrain specs remained in place.

It might look like a mythical dragon from whom it got its name (looks more like a fish to me), but Mitsuoka Orochi would be one amusing addition to the US roads. It certainly would have ruffled a few feathers, but as a car discontinued in 2014, we won’t be able to see it for quite some time.

Nissan MID4

It might only be a pre-production concept that never made it in this world, but I couldn’t resist bringing it up one more time. MID4 is one of the most intriguing supercars we never got. Japanese broke thei promise when Nissan pulled the plug on Ferrari/Porsche fighter, but at least they got something from it. AWD system designed for the concept would find its way into all subsequent all-wheel drive Nissans. Plus, Honda likely used their idea when they embarked on a project called Honda/Acura NSX.

First MID4 concept car from 1985 Frankfurt Auto Show drew its power from 3.0L VG30DE V6 engine. Nissan MID4 II from 1987 Tokyo Motor Show was presented with even more powerful 325-horsepower turbocharged VG30DETT V6 mill.

To this day, Nissan MID4 concepts remain one of automotive what if’s. How would have supercar market looked today had this meticulous concept made production? What would have happened with Honda NSX? And more importantly, would there be Nissan GT-R?

1985 Nissan MID4

1987 Nissan MID4 II

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Nikola Potrebić
About Nikola Potrebić

Despite driving a piece of junk, Nikola still manages to survive the harrowing experience called "A road trip in a Yugo," day in, day out. On the other hand, precious few things move him as muscle cars do. Especially those from the bygone golden era, which makes him wonder why wasn't he born a few decades earlier? Well, at least he's been given the opportunity to enjoy the likes of the Pontiak Aztek, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Fiat Multipla, and other lovely millennials, right? Come to think of it, I'll stick with my Yugo. Thank you very much.

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